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My career at GCHQ: how I went from school teacher to professional codebreaker

Amanda’s desire to use her maths degree and make a difference led to her first role as a teacher and then to her current job at GCHQ.
Although it isn’t required, I’d recommend taking up any opportunity to learn programming before applying to GCHQ.

I spent my first few years after graduating as a secondary school teacher. I loved it, but wanted to find a role that allowed me to use my maths at a higher level. I looked for alternative careers and applied for a range of roles. I only considered working at GCHQ after I attended a women in cyber event where they had a stand. I felt like I'd found a job that would enable me to keep making a difference to my community but with the technical challenge I was looking for.

Making the move from teaching maths

During the recruitment process, I was worried that the fact that I'd been out of academia for two years might put me at a disadvantage. But it was actually a great topic to talk about as I was so enthusiastic about it. I'd advise other graduates to remember that an entire career isn't wholly determined by a graduate job. Trying different roles can be a really positive thing. Recruiters often love that you've had a variety of experiences – especially after uni.

What surprised me was that I didn't need to have any specialist knowledge or technical skills in coding. During two months of training in the first year, I gained the core mathematical knowledge needed. By changing roles regularly, my understanding has increased, as I've begun to grasp some of the different ways that the organisation uses mathematics.

Using maths to protect the UK

I look at cryptology algorithms, which are used to decipher messages with the aim of protecting the UK and its citizens from attacks. It's not like in the movies. The workforce is a lot more diverse and no one is expected to be an expert in everything. Rather than picking up a red telephone to call one person who has all the answers, we work together and combine our different skills to overcome an issue.

The work that I do is satisfying because I know that what I'm doing has a purpose. You can't beat the moment a bit of code finally gives you an answer – especially when you've been working on it for months!

The biggest lesson I've learned since coming here is that there is always more to learn. You aren't expected to be an expert overnight and, unlike uni, there aren't answers to everything. You'll get stuck at times, but the most important thing is that you're willing to learn. I was also given a maths mentor who has helped me feel settled into Cheltenham. Mathematicians form a good network, in which we can ask each other for help without worrying. We also have support groups and networking for minority groups across our community.

Working in secret

Everyone wonders how difficult the secrecy aspect of this job is. To be honest, it isn't that hard. After all, many people don't talk about their jobs in much detail because the people they're talking to probably wouldn't understand or even be interested in the finer detail. In fact, the need to keep my work separate actually helps me to maintain a good work/life balance – and you can still tell people that you had a good day or that you got frustrated because the printer jammed!

Preparing for interview day

When applying for a position as a mathematician at GCHQ, don't worry about trying to fit a stereotype. There's no set profile – other than that we all share an interest in maths.

My advice for the GCHQ interview is that you should show this enthusiasm, as well as a passion for working for the organisation. Ask lots of questions and don't worry too much about knowing all the answers – it's OK to admit if you aren't sure. The maths test is hard – as you'd expect – but no one is expected to complete it all. My interview day was completely different from anything I'd done before. But knowing that I didn't need to be a maths expert really helped. You're not expected to know everything from day one.

Although it isn't required, I'd recommend taking up any opportunity to learn programming before applying to GCHQ. You will almost certainly end up using these skills once you join and it's worth knowing if programming is something you will enjoy. You can refer to this experience during your interviews to demonstrate your interest in the work you'll be doing.

I also found it beneficial that I'd had opportunities to build up my teamworking abilities, as I'm often working in a team in my current position. Having been on the committee for a sports club while at uni, I was used to collaboration and the challenges associated with making decisions in a group. This definitely came in handy during the group exercise at interview. If you're still at uni, I'd encourage you to try out new things during the summer – whether that's through a research project, job, internship, charity work or travel.

Getting involved

The start of your career is often when you have the most flexibility and time to get involved in projects outside of your immediate job role. You need to feel comfortable carrying out your own responsibilities first and asking lots of questions and talking with your co-workers should help with this. However, once you feel settled, branch out and try new things. Within four months of joining GCHQ, I'd signed up to get involved in volunteering opportunities and taken part in a sport and team building event with employees that I had never met before. This has allowed me to make friends outside of my immediate circle of mathematicians and helped me to find out about other roles within GCHQ.

Job title: 
Number theory researcher

2016 Graduated from a Russell Group university with a degree in mathematics, which included a year studying abroad.
2016–2019 Taught mathematics in a secondary school.
2018 Applied to GCHQ and underwent the recruitment and vetting process.
2019 Joined GCHQ as a mathematician.

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